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5 ‘most improved’ Eagles candidates for 2022

Could Jalen Hurts wind up being the most improved Eagle next year?

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NFC Wild Card Playoffs - Philadelphia Eagles v Tampa Bay Buccaneers Photo by Michael Reaves/Getty Images

Anytime a team goes from a 4-11-1 record to 9-8 with a trip to the postseason to boot, some things had to go well along the way.

One of the season’s most pleasant surprises was the play of slot cornerback Avonte Maddox, who Pro Football Focus labeled as the “most improved Eagle” of the 2021 season.

PFF Grade change from 2020 to 2021: 37.8 → 71.0 (+33.2)

Maddox was moved exclusively to outside corner for 2020, and it went poorly, as evidenced by his 37.8 PFF grade. In 2021, Maddox moved to the slot where he belongs and saw a drastic improvement. He actually finished the year as a top-five-graded defensive back in the slot. Maddox’s tackling was on point, with just five misses on 77 attempts and 24 defensive stops.

Maddox’s size always pointed to him being more of a slot corner rather than someone tasked with covering some of the NFL’s larger wideouts on the outside, and that switch to the inside paid huge dividends in Jonathan Gannon’s defense. As a result, he was rewarded with a three-year, $22.5 million contract midway through the ‘21 season.

Looking forward, I see five Eagles players as the most likely candidates to make a jump in 2022 and earn PFF’s “most improved” status for next season.

JALEN HURTS

Assuming Howie Roseman doesn’t trade Hurts and acquire a veteran quarterback like Russell Wilson to take the reigns, Hurts showed enough promise and progression to dream on the possibility of better things. Last year, PFF gave Hurts a grade of 77.1, 14th out of 37 QBs analyzed. That was actually a bit higher than Wilson’s 73.9, by the way.

Hurts’ ability as a runner was a big reason why his score was as high as it was, as his passing numbers were pedestrian in 2021. However, if Hurts makes the kind of progress his most ardent supporters believe he can make, he can vault himself into the upper 80s, and perhaps higher.

It may not be the surest bet in the world, but Hurts has shown solid growth with still plenty of room to get better, a combination that could see him be the team’s most improved player while playing its most important position.

QUEZ WATKINS

For a 2nd year, former 6th-round pick, Watkins’ emergence as a solid weapon last year was certainly a surprise. Despite being in an offense that threw the ball less than any other team in the league, with a QB who had accuracy issues, Watkins still hauled in 43 balls for 647 yards, an average of 15.0 yards per catch.

The Eagles should absolutely pursue a wideout in free agency to add to DeVonta Smith and Watkins, preferably one that would push Watkins into the slot full-time, which would allow defenses to turn some of their attention away from Watkins, allowing him to do even more. As we saw on numerous All-22 recaps this year, there were plenty of plays in which Watkins was wide open and Hurts didn’t see him.

If Hurts sticks around, Watkins’ numbers may not get much better. But if Nick Sirianni gets himself a quarterback who specializes in throwing the ball, Watkins’ numbers could spike and turn him into a true weapon in the slot or as a No. 2 receiver.

KENNETH GAINWELL

Kenny Gainwell had an extremely productive rookie season as a 5th round pick, at times fourth on the team’s running back depth chart, leading all Eagles running backs with 33 receptions and 253 yards through the air. He scored 5 TDs on the ground, 2nd-most among running backs, and one through the air as well, showing a knack for finding the end zone in limited snaps.

Gainwell showed a ton of promise and, in an offense that should be more pass-heavy next season, he could see his offensive totals improve significantly. And depending on what the Eagles do with Jordan Howard and Boston Scott, Gainwell’s snap totals should increase as well. He’s an intriguing running back to watch in training camp next year, for sure, and could be a player who takes a big step forward in 2022.

MILTON WILLIAMS

Last week, Jonny Page took a look at the defensive lineman’s rookie season and had some nice things to say about Roseman’s 3rd round selection.

- Surprisingly low PFF grade. 49 total (ranks 101st among IDL). 45 run D grade (not sure what PFF were watching), 60 pass rush grade.

- 19 pressures, 2 sack, 4 hits, 13 hurries.

- 19 ‘stops’. Per PFF - A tackle that equals a failure for the O. Only 3 less than Cox who played 805 total snaps.

More advanced stats… all based on players with at least 20% of snaps.

- 67th in pressures amongst IDL per PFF.

- 8.9% Pressure ‘win rate’ which ranks 72nd overall. For context, Hargrave 21% (2nd best behind Donald!!!), Cox 13.8%, Ridgeway 8.6%.

- Run D stop rate of 7.9% ranks 49th in the league. For context, Hargrave 8%, Cox 6%, Ridgeway 3.1%

As important as anything else, Williams seemed to improve and made impact plays during the last few weeks of the season. His ability to play both on the edge and inside makes him someone who should see his snap totals increase, too. And yet, the advanced stats show a player who still has a lot of room to grow.

As Page noted:

I must have been watching a different player than PFF was because I thought he developed into a really good run defender. I think he ended the season far ahead where I thought he would be. It was a very promising rookie year and he was a very reliable number 3 defensive tackle. I would summarise his film from this year by describing him as a very athletic, productive run defender who needs to develop his pass rush moves further to get to the next level.

I hinted at this earlier, but his upside is really dependent on whether he can learn to rush the quarterback.

ZECH MCPHEARSON

McPhearson didn’t see a lot of time in Jonathan Gannon’s defense, perhaps not overly surprising for a rookie 4th-round pick, although he was a star special teams player for the Eagles. He played 325 special teams snaps, the most on the team and made his mark as perhaps the team’s best gunner on punts.

Darius Slay and Maddox are obviously locked in at cornerback, and the team will likely draft a cornerback early or sign a free agent to be the team’s No. 2. That said, because of his outstanding special teams play, McPhearson could get a shot as the team’s 4th corner and, after that, who knows? He’s not the most likely candidate for “most improved,” but he also starts with the least amount of NFL production as his base, so it wouldn’t require much!